Film — The Polar Express (G)

The Polar Express (G)

by Amy Diaz

Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis smother the audience with a giant Santa hat while cheery little elves bludgeon us with oversized gingerbread cookies in the early holiday greeting card The Polar Express.

You know that sinking feeling you get when you go to the mall shortly before, say, Halloween? Youíll be in the Best Buy, cheerfully purchasing the first season of Arrested Development or something and then, below the Hoobastank emitting from the floor-model stereos, you hear it. No, you think, that couldnít be right. Iím imagining things. Itís too soon. It canít beÖwait, it is, IT IS, theyíre playing Christmas music!

Dear god, the horror.

Every year Christmas, that most overproduced of holidays, returns even more shiny and plastic and tarted up than before. Like a garishly decorated cupcake, the best you can hope is that the first bite isnít so overly-sweet that it causes you to go into immediate diabetic shock.

Which is to say, those with weak tooth enamel or touchy insulin counts should really wait for the sugar-free version of this little candy cane. The Hanks/Zemeckis duo has all but buried us in the syrup.

Based on the Chris Van Allsburg (which won a Caldecott Medal for its illustrations), The Polar Express tells the story of a boy, called simply Hero Boy (voice of Daryl Sabara), who isnít quite sure he believes in Santa Claus any more. He goes to bed rather bummed only to wake up to a violent shaking of his room and a bright light outside his window. He goes to check it out and finds a train resting in the middle of his neighborhood street.

A conductor (Tom Hanks) gets out and invites the boy aboard. While on the train, he befriends a plucky girl (Nona Gaye), a poor kid (Jimmy Bennett) and a highly obnoxious know-it-all boy (Eddie Deezen). The kids get into a variety of adventures while riding across the snowy wilderness. Some of them are of a magical nature (a chase across the trainís roof where the hero boy meets a hobo [also voiced by Hanks]), some not so much (there are at least two songs). Eventually, the train makes its way to the North Pole and the kids make their way to Santa, so that everybody can learn a lesson about faith and friendship and the joy of the season.

Excuse me, Iím feeling a bit queasy, I need fresh air and a Dramamine.

You know, itís not just that the whole merriness-of-Christmas thing is overdone like Thanksgiving turkey. And itís not only that I consider leaning on the holidays to win audience emotional response as tacky and cheap as leaning on patriotism to win votes. And itís not just that I personally believe that most holiday movies are eye-bleeding nightmares to sit though.

Though all these things are true.

What makes The Polar Express particularly horrible to sit through is that Team Forrest Gump (Zemeckis and Hanks) wrings every moment for the last little drop of Holiday Cheer. And itís not the sincere goodwill-towards-men cheer. Oh no. This is the gritted-teeth, knock-back-the-egg-nog, I-hate-my-family-but-we-WILL-have-a-merry-freakiní-Christmas cheer. The cheer that hides a flask of scotch beneath its reindeer sweater. This cheer is icing-covered and therapy-bound.

Just as a simple candle-in-each-window, wreath-on-the-door home decoration plan is far more festive and effective than a bombardment-of-plastic-figurines-enmeshed-in-a-web-of-twinkly-lights setup, the actual Van Allsburg book is beautiful and surprising in a way that all the CGI ďmagicĒ of this movie is not. (Thought the adults of this movie come out alright, the children and elves have that creepy animatronic-puppet look.) The subtlety, grace and damn near everything clever about this quiet book is lost in the movieís barrage of images.

Which is not to say that the images themselves are bad. On a technical level, a good half of the visuals are impressive and bewitching. Too bad they have to come in such a grinding-headache of a movie.

- Amy Diaz 

2004 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH